Since January some 60 foreign human rights activists have been expelled from Chiapas, Mexico, where violence has been escalating between the government and the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army. One of them was Chicagoan Tom Hansen, who was sent back to the U.S. in February. Though the reason for his expulsion is hazy, Hansen claims it’s because of his work as codirector of the Chiapas Media Project, a group that was delivering video cameras, editing equipment, and blank tapes to two villages in the region. One of the villages, Ejido Morelia–populated by 800 Tzetzal Indians–had been invaded by government forces three times in one month.

Hansen, who now must obtain a special visa before he can return to Mexico, says the equipment was intended for the residents to record the army’s harassment. “Part of the low-intensity warfare is a propaganda campaign to discredit the communities. This is a way to give them the capacity to tell their own story.”

In March a second delegation traveled to Ejido Morelia to deliver more equipment and spend a week teaching video production and editing to village youths. This time the group included young video makers from Chicago’s Street-Level Youth Media. The Ukrainian Village-based organization trains teens in video production and computers. Due to the risky nature of the trip, only alums of the program–all of them over 18–were allowed to go. Members prepared by studying the situation, including learning what to say if they were stopped by police. But Paul Teruel, Street-Level’s codirector, says, “All that went out the window once we got there and experienced it for ourselves.”

The 18-person delegation, which also included members of groups from Oaxaca and Mexico City, was accompanied part of the way by deputies from Mexico’s National Assembly. Once they met up with representatives of two other human rights groups in Ejido Morelia–chosen for its stable source of electricity and because of Hansen’s long relationship with community leaders–they were on their own.

On their first night a fight broke out between Zapatista sympathizers and supporters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, and one man was badly beaten. During the altercation, the sole light in the community center where they were staying went out, and for three long hours no one knew what was happening. Later they learned that the lightbulb had become unscrewed from its socket. Other problems seemed minimal, says Teruel. Temperatures ranged from the mid-30s to the 90s, bathrooms were holes in the ground filled with spiders and wasps’ nests, and one day the entire village left to fight a forest fire. But the most annoying daily occurrence, says Teruel, came courtesy of a member of one of the other groups, who awakened everyone at six with a sharp blast from his whistle.

Editing the videos, on the other hand, went swimmingly–despite the havoc that dirt floors wreaked on the VCRs. The original plan was to make one comprehensive documentary; but instead, each group–including locals–shot and edited its own short pieces. The Street-Level group recently finished a seven-minute tape, a reflective piece culled from 30 hours of footage. The villagers’ video illustrates the roles of men and women and combines interviews and cutaways of people working. “We men, ourselves, we do a little to help out, but not much,” says one man as his wife makes tortillas in the background.

It’s hard to say how much of the village kids’ affinity for the medium may have come from watching Ejido Morelia’s one TV. “Near the end of the trip a crew was shooting behind a man and his mule, who were walking away from them,” says Teruel. “We watched as they stopped shooting, ran ahead of him, and taped him coming toward them. That told us they understood the concept of putting together shots, that they knew how to make it look like one continuous flow, even if they shot it in reverse.”

Griselda Nuñez, who became involved with Street-Level while attending Wells High School, recalls working on a mural when some village children asked if they could borrow her materials to draw. “When we were kids, we’d do houses, kids, birds in the sky, trees,” she says. “Instead of birds, they drew helicopters. The people were all Zapatistas carrying machine guns. It was shocking to see that every kid has that embedded in their minds.”

Representatives from Street-Level Youth Media will show the videos and discuss their experiences Friday at 7 at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, 1852 W. 19th. Admission is $6, $5 for students and seniors. Call 312-738-1503. –Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Shalona Byrd, Paul Teruel, Griselda Nunez, Sandro Corona, and Julie Brich-Scheuring by Alexander Newberry.